Foraging a new path: Komatiq owner achieves balance with mushrooms

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>Greg Doyle sells his Oyster mushrooms and other varieties every week at the Lunenburg Farmer&#8217;s Market.</p>
  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>Greg Doyle forages for Lion&#8217;s Mane (left) and Lobster mushrooms to sell to restaurants and at farmers markets</p>
  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>Oyster mushrooms contain zinc, iron, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin C, folic acid, niacin, and vitamins B-1 and B-2.</p>
  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>As well as fresh product, Komatiq Farm offers a variety of value-added foods such as pickled Shittake mushrooms.</p>

The adage, 'When life gives you a lemon, make lemonade,' holds a bitter-sweet truth when it comes to Greg Doyle, owner of Komatiq Farm.

Life doesn't come much more sour then when it takes away a loved one. But after he lost his wife to cancer in 2007, Doyle decided to set out on a new life path for himself, and created a new business in the process.

"I really, at that point, had to make a decision. Do I go back to [northern Canada] and go back to accounting? Do I stay here and stay in accounting? Or do I look for something else to do?

"So I decided to do something I'd enjoy as well as hopefully make some money at it," he told LighthouseNOW.

An accountant for the previous 26 years, Doyle made a plan to capitalize on and spread the knowledge of the medicinal benefits of mushrooms he had gleaned while helping his wife find respite from the effects of her treatment.

Now he can be found cultivating spawn on his mushroom farm in Vogler's Cove and walking the woods foraging for wild mushrooms.

He advises customers approaching his table at the farmers markets in Lunenburg and Halifax of the reported health benefits of shittake, lion's mane and oyster mushrooms.

And when guests sit down for dinner in restaurants such as Rime and Lincoln St. Food in Lunenburg, it's Doyle's mushrooms they may be enjoying.

It's a long personal journey from Iqaluit, Nunavut, where Doyle and his wife had been working for the 10 years prior to her falling ill.

They named their property in Vogler's Cove Komatiq, which is the Inuktitut word for sleigh.

Doyle's first step on the path to a new business had him talking to restaurants, asking whether they had local suppliers for their mushrooms. He reached out to farmers in Ontario about the potential market for cultivated mushrooms in general.

"At that time, there was nobody else in Nova Scotia that was cultivating outdoor log mushrooms per se," he observed.

In 2009, he went to Ontario for three months and volunteered as a worker on three different mushroom farms, learning about inoculating logs with spawn and overall cultivating methods.

The farmers told him the easiest mushroom to grow was shittake.

"So, I said, 'That's a no-brainer. I'll start off with shittake and then decide, as time goes by, whether or not I can stay in this business.'"

Upon returning to Nova Scotia, in 2010 he bought 1,000 maple and birch logs and cut them into 5-foot lengths. He injected them with the spawn he had purchased in Ontario, and then waited.

In the 18 months that followed, he shifted the logs into various positions an estimated 10 to 15 times.

It would be two years before he could cultivate and sell the mushrooms, during which time the pension he had started to draw as an accountant helped sustain him.

"I was hoping to make more than I did those first two years, but I didn't have to to survive," he says.

Once he had mushrooms available, he approached restaurants from Chester to Vogler's Cove. Those in Lunenburg, including Fleur de Sel, Ryme, and Lincoln Street Food, were among the first to nibble at the opportunity.

"The nice thing about restaurants is the chefs all know each other. For that whole season, I had no trouble selling just to restaurants," he says.

Before long, his production surpassed the demands of area restaurants, so Doyle began selling at the Lunenburg Farmers Market as well. At the same time, he created value-added products such as pickled mushrooms and truffles.

But while the marketing and retail gained in momentum, the supply production proved to be onerous.

"You're talking about moving 1,000, 70-pound logs, 10 or 15 times a year," emphasizes Doyle.

"By the end of those first two years, I was in the best shape of my life. But it was just simply too much work for one person to keep up with."

As luck would have it, Doyle met up with a Belgium entrepreneur selling a variety of foraged foods in Halifax. After going on a few expeditions with him in the woods, Doyle began to realize he could ease his own work load by balancing his product between cultivated and foraged mushrooms.

"What I would normally do with my time off anyway is walk around in the woods and go down to the beach. It was just filling my recreation time with another activity."

His product is now split fairly evenly between cultivated and foraged mushrooms.

While Doyle estimates he spent more than $40,000 on equipment and materials gearing up for cultivation, he realizes it wasn't entirely necessary.

"Except I was doing such a large scale...I would think that 90 per cent of people that get into farming mushrooms start on a much smaller scale than I was. In which case, you wouldn't need to buy a big tractor, because you could move everything manually. You wouldn't need to buy big soaking tanks."

Over time, more and more mushroom growers have begun popping up over the province. Doyle estimates there are about 25 now, though he says he's the only large producer in Lunenburg County. Most others involved in mushrooms are foragers or those with 10 or 20 logs.

"They're not looking to build up a business," he notes.

Still, while the numbers are increasing, Doyle says he's not feeling any pressure from potential competition.

"I would, if I was continuing to try to expand."

He says he looked at the mushroom market two years ago and decided he would focus on local restaurants and farmers markets.

"At my age, and my stage," he's not keen to start pitching to restaurants the length and breadth of the province.

But Doyle has "absolutely" every intention of carrying on down the path he set for himself seven years ago.

"I plan to do this another seven or eight years," he says.

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